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More DeCoster history comes to light in wake of Congressional request for testimony
The owners of two Iowa egg farms that have been implicated in a national voluntary recall of more than half a billion eggs have declined interview requests and dodged members of the press, but that might be about to change.
A U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee announced it will hold hearings on Sept. 14 and that it intends to call Austin “Jack” DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg, and Orland Bethel, owner of Hillandale Farms, to testify. It is not yet known if the men will submit to the will of Congress and appear.
The subcommittee, led by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., also requested the inspection records for the two companies’ facilities, documents related to internal protocols and standards for monitoring and allegations of health, safety, environmental or animal cruelty violations for the companies and all related companies.
Similar requests were made by the subcommittee to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat who represents Iowa’s 1st District, serves as vice chairman of the subcommittee and is the only Iowan who would take part in the proceedings. Wright County Egg, located near the tiny town of Galt, and Hillandale Farms, with a corporate office in New Hampton, are both a part of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, which is represented by Republican Tom Latham.
If DeCoster and Bethel agree to appear before Congress, it will mark the first time either has made public statements that were not vetted through a company spokesperson.
Between the two companies, more than 500 million eggs have been voluntarily recalled, and more than 1,300 people throughout the nation have been sickened by Salmonella. It is not the first time, however, that DeCoster and Bethel have found themselves linked in an unappealing circumstance.
In 2006, Ohio’s Department of Agriculture revoked the permits of Ohio Fresh Eggs because its new co-owners — one of whom was Hillandale founder Orland Bethel — had failed to disclose that DeCoster had put up more than $125 million for the purchase. The two listed co-owners had contributed only $10,000. By listing DeCoster only as an anonymous investor, charged state officials, the trio had hoped the state would not become privy to DeCoster’s previous environmental record in Iowa, where he had been classified as an “habitual violator.”
An appeals panel later overturned the revocation, indicating that the disclosure was adequate.
Although original permits for Ohio Fresh Eggs listed Bethel and co-owner John Hershey, a renewal of the permit listed owners as Bethel and John Glessner, a man who has long been a business associate of DeCoster.
While DeCoster was being regulated by state authorities as an “habitual violator” and thus prohibited from expanding operations, Glessner founded a company called Environ Egg Production LLC with the same address, phone number, agent and attorneys as DeCoster Farms of Iowa. The site of Environ was moved back under DeCoster direction and is now known as Wright County Egg, the company undergoing the recall for Salmonella.
According to Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley:
Environ later transferred ownership to a company called Environ/Wright County Inc., which leases the site to Wright County Egg, which is directly owned by DeCoster. Company spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell would not say when that arrangement began.
In 2004, a check issued by one of his companies paid Environ’s annual compliance fee, records show. By 2007, DeCoster was signing documents listing himself as the site’s owner.
Glessner was also linked to DeCoster in a 2003 federal immigration case in which DeCoster admitted he had ignored evidence that some of the workers at his egg plants were not legally authorized to work. DeCoster, according to court documents, allowed labor contractor Iowa Ag to hire the workers. Glessner, as owner of Iowa Ag, was sentenced to four months in prison, fined $6,000 and ordered to pay $300,000 to settle a forfeiture claim.
In addition, Wright County residents recounted for reporter Joe Fassler the story of a “citizen’s arrest” made on 19-year-old Lucas Ortega by Glessner and and other company supervisor named Myron Lawler. Ortega, who was believed to have stolen a computer from Wright County Egg, was allegedly brutalized, bound and brought to the egg facility for interrogation. Both Glessner and Lawler were convicted for false imprisonment and assault, although the charges were later reversed on appeal.
Glessner has not been ordered to appear before Congress.
Below is Stupak’s letter to DeCoster.